I like to use my blog at least occasionally to report on conferences I attended. This week I attended a conference on the Bible and the holocaust at a leading evangelical seminary. Consider this something like a book review only of a conference instead of a book.
First, let me say this was a wonderful idea and worthwhile endeavor and I congratulate the seminary for hosting it and the organizers for planning it.
Some of the papers I heard were truly enlightening, although I did not hear much I didn’t already know (except a few details here and there). I’ve made almost a life long study of the holocaust and, although I would not call myself an expert, I think I know more about it than most people. So I’m not faulting anyone for the fact that I didn’t hear much I didn’t already know.
What I was hoping to hear was some serious discussion of the implications of the rise of Naziism in Germany and of the holocaust for our world and especially our country today. I heard some of that but less than I wanted to hear. And the implications I heard mentioned were not the ones I was hoping for.
Now, let me say that I do not fault the organizers or the seminary for the failures of some of the speakers. I have planned many such conferences over the years and one thing I’ve learned is that once you turn the microphone over to someone you have no control over what they will say and what they do say is often unexpected and sometimes downright dismaying.
I want to focus on the first evening of the conference during which I heard three back-to-back plenary speeches. All three subjects were fascinating ones and I hoped to learn something. My expectations were too high. Again, however, I don’t fault the organizers. My knowledge of this subject is pretty thorough so I would have been somewhat surprised to hear something I had never heard or read before. But I hoped even more to hear one of the speakers talk about implications of Nazi Germany and the holocaust for America and the world today and did not hear about what I think are the main implications and lessons we should draw.
The first speaker was a young woman who works with the Yad Vashem holocaust museum in Israel (which I have visited). Her talk was about the background to the holocaust including the history of anti-semitism especially in Europe. While I didn’t learn anything new, I found her summary of ideas and events leading up to the holocaust fascinating. Her presentation was well-prepared and well-delivered. Most importantly, it matched the solemnity of the subject in terms of delivery. That is, she did not engage in any rhetorical flourishes to entertain or captivate her audience.
The second address was, in my opinion, truly awful. The organizers had every good reason to invite this man because he has written two books about the holocaust from an evangelical Christian perspective. He is a pastor of a well known evangelical (fundamentalist?) church and author of many books. Once he gained control of the podium and microphone, however, in my opinion, he abused his privilege by engaging in numerous frivolous attempts at humor including a Billy Graham imitation. His talk switched back and forth from serious discussion of the holocaust and especially the roles of the churches and theologians in Nazi Germany to what can only be described as a poor stand up comedy routine. (“I asked my wife if I look 69 years old. She said ‘No, honey, you don’t look 69 years old. You used to, but you don’t anymore’.”) On and on it went–cutting significantly into the following lecturer’s time. (The preacher said several times that he was finished but had to tell just one more story.)
This man violated almost every rule of speech-making. He insulted his audience’s intelligence by talking about things he clearly did not know or understand thoroughly (such as theologians and philosophers of the 19th century and how their ideas influenced Naziism and the holocaust). Many of his historical allusions and anecdotes were wrong. He clearly did not know his subject as well as he should have to speak at a scholarly conference.
This preacher blamed amost everyone for the holocaust including Luther, “liberals” like Schleiermacher (whose name he pronounced with a snarl) and Hegel, pietists, the Confessing Church movement (for “wimping out”). Pietists? He confused Pietism with Quietism–a common error but one that should not be made by a scholar or expert.
This man’s routine was so awful I must have been groaning because my seat mate (a stranger) suggested I leave! Perhaps I should have, but it was like watching a train wreck. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. The man strutted around the stage, alternately glaring at the audience as if we were Nazis and cracking jokes to evoke laughter. He even made fun of the name of the author of a recent Bonhoeffer biography. He asked if there were any “historians” (a word he pronounced with disdain) in the audience and, when nobody dared admit it, he said with a disgusted tone “They are all probably home studying.”
I’m not criticizing the conference or its organizers. I’m criticizing the speaker ONLY. He should have respected the solemnity of the subject and risen to the scholarly level of the other speakers or else admitted he couldn’t. His talk was out of place in such a conference.
But, that’s not all. He condemned German nationalism (as contributing heavily to the holocaust) but never mentioned American nationalism as something to be concerned about during his remarks about implications and lessons to be learned. (By “nationalism” he clearly meant confusing God and country.) And then, during the last several minutes of his talk, he blasted Islam without every suggesting that there are varieties of Islam and that not all Muslims are radicals. I am not pro-Islam, but neither do I think it is appropriate to tar all Muslims or even all of Islam with the same brush as this preacher did. I thought his treatment of Islam was an example of high irony given the subject of the conference. We should know by now it is wrong to demonize whole religions or groups of people which is what I heard him doing.
After the preacher finally (!) quit a seminary professor got up to talk and gave a very finally crafted lecture about holocausts in the Bible. His whole point was clearly stated. It was that although some mass suffering is God’s judgment we are never allowed to make that determination because much is not. Much inhumanity and innocent suffering comes simply from the fallenness of the world and is not God’s plan or God’s doing.
Afterwards, several people in the audience stood up to criticize the speaker for suggesting the holocaust was God’s judgment on the Jews of Europe for their sins. (He never said anything remotely like that.) One elderly woman viciously attacked the speaker for saying things he did not say and that would be inconsistent with his points. Then the first speaker, the young women from Yad Vashem, stood up and blasted the speaker as anti-semitic and a “holocaust denier” because he dared to use the word “holocaust” for events other than the one that took place in Europe between 1941 and 1945. Obviously, to her, any comparison of events with the holocaust that makes the latter one example of a category of horrific historical events amounts to “holocaust denial.”
Several of the audience members made remarks that were simply shocking. One young man claimed that the Hebrew word for “shepherd” is the same as the word for “evil.” (I’m not sure what his point was, but several Hebrew scholars quickly corrected him. He stuck to his claim in the face of scholarly correction.)
So what lessons can one learn from all this? First, some such is probably to be expected in a conference on such a controversial subject. (I say controversial because there are plenty of people who are too quick to accuse others of holocaust denial and anti-semitism on very flimsy grounds.) Second, if you are a speaker at a conference take into account the nature of the subject and speak appropriately. A comedy routine is inappropriate at a conference about the holocaust. Third, if you are listening to a talk at a conference, make sure you understand before reacting. People made fools of themselves by reacting as they did to the third speaker’s talk which was totally innocuous and basically simply pointed out things Scripture says. Fourth, if you are organizing such an event on a controversial topic, it might be a good idea to ask to see speakers’ manuscripts in advance so you can at least surround a talk with appropriate context and put talks in their proper places. Again, a comedy routine using heavy sarcasm is not appropriate at such a conference. But I don’t blame the organizers; I don’t see how they could have anticipated the second speaker’s atrocious approach to the subject.